Showing posts with label Oceania Nautica. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oceania Nautica. Show all posts

Monday, May 8, 2023

Surprisingly Stunning Saigon

By whatever name -- Saigon, as it has long been known, or by its actual name, Ho Chi Minh City -- is a city both stunning and full of delightful surprises. 

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City full of surprises

Even though it had been on our travel bucket list for nearly three decades, we didn't come with any expectations; no 'must see' or 'must do'. We simply wanted to see as much as we could in the nearly three days, that we had to explore this sprawling megalopolis. And maybe that is why we found it so full of surprises, and so stunning.

Here, unlike Cambodia, we explored on our own. . .on foot.  A bit warm with temperatures in the low 90F's but with good walking shoes, quite easy to accomplish.

City Hall patterned after Paris's Hall de Ville

This city was our last port of call and one of the reasons we had chosen this cruise aboard the Oceania Nautica itinerary for our 10-day late February getaway. 

The polluted Saigon River looked better at night

The murky river route that led us to the city (you can read about it here) didn't give us any reason to expect much. The stereotype of communist countries had me expecting to find a big city as drab, gray and polluted as the river we traveled to get to it.

Rolls-Royce and Communist Country didn't compute

 And that certainly was a misassumption on my part!  Clean tree-lined streets were home to high end fashion boutiques offering the ultimate latest designs in in home decor, clothing and shoes.  We certainly didn't expect to happen upon a Rolls-Royce dealership across the street from City Hall. . .a showroom so exclusive that you had to show your passport to get into the store!

The Scout reflecting on a Rolls-Royce on display

As 'Saigon', the city had been the capital of the French Colony of Cochinchina and later the Independent Republic of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. It became Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, named for the founder of the Communist Party of Viet Nam and the country's long-time leader.

A portrait of Ho Chi Minh dominates in the city's post office

Admittedly, our visit was short. We had just an appetizer-sized sample of the city with our explorations limited to its District 1, an area chockablock with some of the city's most beautiful French colonial buildings lining its wide elegant boulevards.

The Majestic opened in 1925, one of the city's oldest and elegant

Being fans of historic hotels, we headed to the Hotel Majestic to celebrate The Scout's birthday which fell on one of our days in port. The five-story hotel is built in French colonial and French Riviera style and its rooftop bar overlooks the Saigon River. It was a perfect place for a birthday toast!

Fresh mango margaritas at the Majestic Hotel

We sipped fresh mango margaritas, one of the hotel's specialty drinks and agreed this might be a good base should we return for a larger sampling of this city. 

Spring rolls at the Rex Hotel rooftop

Choosing between it and another historic hotel will be a tough decision though. The Rex Hotel, once a hangout for American officers and war correspondents in the 60's and 70's, quickly became a favorite of ours. 

Coffee mocha at the Rex Hotel

We made its rooftop bar -- once known as the home of the Five O'Clock Follies -- a regular stop each morning for iced coffee mochas.  We also had appetizers - the best spring rolls we've ever eaten -- and drinks there one evening.

Daily war press briefings at 5 pm in the Rex rooftop bar.

The elegant building housing the hotel was opened in 1927 as a car dealership. It wasn't until 1961 that the first guests experienced what that year opened as The Rex Hotel. 

The Rex Hotel and its famed rooftop bar

During the Viet Nam War in the 1970's its rooftop bar was the site of daily press briefings which were nicknamed the 'Five O' Clock Follies' by U.S. journalists who are said to have found the officer's optimism, shall we say, somewhat misguided.  

Courtyard of the War Remants Museum

Several blocks away the building that housed the U.S. Information Service, has become home of the War Remnants Museum. Previously called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it was a somber place where the war's atrocities and its impacts on the everyday Vietnamese citizen, were documented through pictorial displays, video, art displays.  It was as horrifying to me as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  We spent far less time than the guidebook's recommended two hours.   It isn't a place for everyone. I am glad we went. It is good to see both sides of the story, the old journalist in me, kept reminding us.

The French-era post office - a popular tourist stop these days

We continued sightseeing, by visiting the enormous French-era post office built between 1886 and 1892. While still operating as a post office, the place is a popular tourist destination.

The Opera House, officially known as the Municipal Theatre

Our cruise ship shuttle bus stop was across the street from the city's Municipal Theatre, better known as the Opera House.  It, like so many of the sights, were magnificent.  But in the end, it was those scenes of everyday life that we will likely remember the longest. A small sample of them:

A supply warehouse on the dock 

Our ship cabin faced the dock, so we were entertained by watching the coming and goings of commerce.  A large warehouse, storing all sorts of goods, seemed a hub of activity all day long.  

Of course, the street congestion as seen from our bus made its way to and from the ship, will also be long remembered. (Not to mention trying to cross those streets on foot!)

Typical traffic congestion in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City

And the school children. They came by the busload to visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum just around the corner from our berth.  They found our shuttle bus and we cruise passengers to be of interest and loved it when we waved to them.

School children waved in greeting

Our time was too quickly over. We set sail for Singapore where we disembarked and made a dash to the airport for our flight back to Kuala Lumpur.  After a night there and our Southeast Asian adventure was in the history books.  

Thanks for coming along with us once again.  We will be back with more travel tales and hope you will be with us! Safe travels to you and yours ~

Friday, March 31, 2023

Cambodia and The Killing Fields

They were orphans, those children who followed us around on that hot, humid day in Cambodia.  

We were quite interesting specimens

As we made our way into temples, and around the grounds of this Buddhist Wat, the children watched us with as much interest as we were showing the statues and buildings that made up this holy place. 

Our guide explained as our tour bus pulled away, that the children are being raised and educated within the compound by the monks that oversee its operation.

The Wat Children - Cambodia

A collective sigh - the type prompted by learning something heartbreaking - seemed to echo through the our fellow cruisers processed the information. 

Temples of Cambodia

The temple compound was our first stop on a tour of Sihanoukville (see-an-oouk-ville), Cambodia, the third port of call on our Southeast Asian cruise.  Cambodia was one of the reasons we chose this Oceania cruise. It was all new territory and aside from guidebook descriptions and a few online travel articles most of our ideas about the country had been forged decades ago in our teen years.

Our welcome to Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Back in the mid-to-late 70's U. S. newspaper headlines and nightly news reports shaped our view of Cambodia; a country that was then a war zone.  Images were furthered cultivated by the chilling, but award-winning 1984 movie called, 'The Killing Fields'. 

1984 award-winning movie, The Killing Fields

A capsule bit of history: The Khymer Rouge, a radical communist movement headed by an individual called Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 - 1979. He and the Khymer Rouge wanted to socially engineer a classless, agrarian society so took aim at intellectuals, civil servants, professionals and city residents forcing them to march to and work in agricultural fields as part of a re-education process. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation, disease or of being overworked.  Their bodies were buried in mass graves that later became known as the killing fields.

Sihanoukville Today

Early morning arriving Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The Sihanoukville cityscape that greeted us in our early morning arrival was breath-taking - it looked both modern and large.  And definitely a contrast to those wartime images from 40 years ago. 

With just a day to explore this city we chose a highlight's tour which took us to some of the area's famed white sand beaches, the enormous and overwhelming Phsar Leu Market, with booths selling a bit of anything and everything, as well as its famous Golden Lion statues and Buddhist temples. 

The Land of Buddha - Cambodia

As we traveled between the 'sights', we found the everyday scenes to be as interesting as those places considered 'highlights'. For all the high-rise buildings and big boulevards, hotels and beaches, we also saw poverty.  

Street scenes Sihanoukville Cambodia

Homes made of corrugated metal, and small roadside businesses being operated off the back of trucks.

Roadside business - Cambodia

Seeing local everyday life is one of our favorite travel activities.

Street scene Sihanoukville, Cambodia

We saw some beautiful and contrasting sights on that taster-sized tour, but what we will remember the longest about this introduction to Cambodia will likely not be the places we visited, but our tour guide and the story he told in response to that collective sigh about the orphans:  

Our guide - witness to the killing fields

'Being raised by a Buddhist monk isn't all that bad,' he assured us. 'I was. My sisters and brothers and I were raised by the monks after Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge killed our parents.' 

His father had worked for the government, one of the types of persons targeted by the Khymer Rouge.

Father of four with an infectious laugh and quick smile

'I was 10, I remember the march to the fields.' 

He then recounted some of the scenes he had witnessed along the way. I am not listing them, suffice to say, they were scenes no one should have to witness, especially a 10-year-old boy and his siblings. He lived with the monks for 10 years.

He didn't tell the story as a victim seeking sympathy. He recounted his experiences candidly. And he balanced the horrors of his childhood, by later telling us of his four college-age children, each on their way to graduation just as any proud dad would. Nor did he dwell on the country's past as he soon resumed his tales and tidbits about Cambodia.

Cambodia - thanks to maps

Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, is younger than the two of us. It was 1955 when work began on a deep-water port in an area called Kampong Som and with the port's opening a year later, a town to house the workers was born. It is four-hours from the country's capital, Phnom Penh.

During the course of the day. we were blessed by a Buddhist monk, who prayed and sprinkled holy water on us.

We were blessed by this monk

And we were granted good luck (according to legend) because we posed for a photo in front of the Golden Lions Monument on a roundabout from which wide boulevards extend and cars race past. (We had good luck both getting to the monument and back across the street, that is for sure!)

How lucky are we now!

Several of our fellow passengers were heard commenting that the city had disappointed them. It had been dirty, there was poverty, and they recounted any number of items that hadn't 'wow-ed' them. We don't travel just to see pretty, so I can tell you that for us, this stop only whetted our appetite for more Cambodia! We are ready to visit Phnom Penh, Angor Wat and Siemreab among others. 

That is one of the selling points of cruising for us: these appetizer-sized tastes of places are often enough to bring us back for more comprehensive overland tours or to write a destination off as having 'been there, done that'.

 Thanks for being with us today and we hope you'll be back -- and bring some friends with you -- for my upcoming tales of rocking and rolling on the South China Sea thanks to stormy weather!  

Until then wishes for safe travels to you and yours~



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